Three Great Things: Wayne Wang

To mark the release of his new film, Coming Home Again, the legendary indie director reveals some of things that brighten up his life.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the release in virtual cinemas of Wayne Wang’s new film, the intimate family drama Coming Home Again, Wang shares some of the things that have made a big impression on him, both lately and over the course of his life. — N.D.

I’m a hardcore film guy, so I’ve only ever really watched movies. The one good thing that came out of this pandemic is that I’ve started watching TV too. I’m watching Ozark now and finding it quite amazing. It’s very well written and what I love about the show is that I’m constantly surprised by it. My wife and I have been watching foreign shows such as Borgen and Spiral, and when we come back to American series, we find they’re a little too predictable. But Ozark is not like a lot of other TV shows, or even movies, where you can guess what’s going to happen. The characters are unique – a little off, but really interesting and complex – and there is no moral judgment of anyone. The show just kinda does what it does. I think it’s very special. We’re watching season two and having a great time with it. We only watch one episode a night, because it’s so intense. We figured if we watch too much, we’re going to have nightmares, so we watch one episode and then some food shows to soften it up a bit.

Julia Garner, Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in Ozark.

I’ve definitely been inspired by shows like Ozark, as there are so many great ideas out there that are surprising and haven’t been done. If I were allowed to explore a detailed, authentic story, I would love to create a TV show. I like stories that are a little outrageous, but still real. For example, in my movie Life is Cheap, there’s a scene at the end where the main character is punished and made to eat shit. People used to get so upset about that scene, but it’s based on a real story in Hong Kong, where a famous actor was caught sleeping with a gangster’s wife and had to literally eat shit as punishment.

I’ve always loved food. As a kid, I was fat. I always overate and got sick because I ate too much. Food is so much a part of me and I love to eat anything: street food, fancy food, different foods from different cultures. I’m so lucky to be living in the Bay Area. When I went to school in Berkeley, Chez Panisse was there at the time. I got to know Alice Waters and to understand the idea of eating food that’s been grown locally and is cooked in a simple, beautiful way. I love that. Over the years, I also got to know Corey Lee, the Korean chef who was the culinary consultant on my new film, Coming Home Again. He worked at French Laundry for many years and then opened his own restaurant, Benu, which now has three Michelin stars. His food is amazing. For me, he’s one of the most talented chefs in the world and I was lucky to have him work on the movie.

Justin Chon in Coming Home Again.

Because I’m Chinese, I was a little insecure about making Coming Home Again, as it’s a film about Koreans. When Corey walked into the kitchen of our set, he said, “The kitchen is all wrong. It’s Chinese.” So he switched out the sauces, the spices, the utensils, the containers, and the whole pantry and refrigerator so that everything was very Korean. I show a lot of food in my films and I want it to be authentic and tasty-looking. As we were figuring out what the dishes in the movie were going be, we learned a lot of amazing things from Corey, like how to cook them and how to prepare them.

Cecilia Chang and Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters in Wayne Wang’s 2014 documentary Soul of a Banquet.

Oddly enough, I don’t cook myself. I see how much time and work it takes for the cooks I respect to make really good food. I already have a job that takes a lot of time and work, and so I figured I’m not going to be a great cook. During this pandemic period, though, my wife decided that she was going to take up cooking. After six months, she’s becoming really good. I think that’s partly because of all the amazing restaurants I’ve taken her to over the years!

A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa
I read a lot of different things. I love Ocean Vuong’s book On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous and think he’s a really talented and passionate writer. A friend recently recommended a very interesting book which I just started reading by the Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa called A Country for Dying. I think anyone who likes Ocean Vuong’s work would also love reading this book. It’s about a prostitute and her son, a young gay Muslim who becomes a jihadi. There are multiple characters in this perpendicular narrative, such as a good friend of the prostitute who is going through a gender transition, and it’s a fascinating window into the lives of impoverished North Africans in Paris, dealing with the politics of their own identity and their sexual identity. The prostitute is in love with a man who’s no longer in love with her, and everything is kind of complicated and twisted. I like the fact that the novel bounces around narratively; it’s not a classic three-act structure, it’s more perpendicular and really gets inside the lives of these characters.

Whenever I go to Paris, I’d never normally meet people like the characters in A Country for Dying. I love how books give me a window into other people’s lives, especially those people whose paths I would not normally cross. If you look at my films, the vast majority of them are based on books. I find that if you write an original script, no matter how good it is, it just somehow doesn’t quite scratch beneath the surface enough in the way that a book does. Smoke was the film that really got me excited about adaptations, because I was working with Paul Auster, who based his screenplay on a short story he wrote and burrowed inside the lives of all these different characters and showed the way their paths crossed, or just missed each other. I really like that kind of stuff.

Hong Kong-born writer-director Wayne Wang’s latest film Coming Home Again, an intimate family drama starring Justin Chon and Jackie Chung, is now in virtual cinemas through Outsider Pictures. Wang established himself as a Chinese-American storyteller with his first two films, the acclaimed indies Chan is Missing (1982) and Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985). Given his upbringing in Hong Kong by traditional Chinese parents, Wang is often identified with films about the Chinese Diaspora, including the film adaptation of Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), and The Joy Luck Club (1993), the iconic Chinese-American film that crossed over to a mainstream American audience. However, Wang has also made such independent features as Smoke and Blue in the Face (both 1995), two collaborations with novelist Paul Auster starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. In 2002, Wang made the romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan, starring Ralph Fiennes and Jennifer Lopez, and also worked with Jeremy Irons in Chinese Box (1997), Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman in Anywhere But Here (1999), and Queen Latifah in Last Holiday (2006). In 2007, Wang returned to his Chinese roots with a double feature about two women from two different periods of New China, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska, and in 2011 directed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, based on the bestselling novel by Lisa See.